Game review: Avernum 6
- Title: Avernum 6
- Developer: Spiderweb Software (Jeff Vogel)
- Platforms: Windows, Mac
- Price: $28 (plus $6 to purchase it on CD)
I’ll start with a confession: Avernum 6 is the first Avernum game I’ve played. So I write with a fresh eye toward the thing, rather than seeing it as one in a series of gradually improving games.
The writing in Avernum 6 is truly the game’s backbone, and it ranges from competent to quite good.
Though Jeff Vogel’s characterizations occasionally lack consistency, he has a way with words, and his curmudgeonly narrative voice provided me with chuckles on more than a few occasions. You’ll spend a lot of time exploring, talking to people, and searching things. The dialog and descriptions you get of the game world will arguably provide most of your moment-to-moment entertainment value while playing, so it’s good that Vogel has taken the time to do this well.
Avernum 6, however, lacks a certain level of polish. The portraits for your party members are distractingly amateurish, particularly when compared to the beautiful hand-painted portraits of the other characters you meet during the game. Further, while many of the in-game graphics look pretty good in a still screenshot, few of them animate in-game. The few that do, such as campfires and basic attack animations, don’t look so hot. All in all, the lack of animation doesn’t hurt the experience too terribly, but it is a little strange to see your party members jump from space to adjacent space in short jerks, all the while remaining perfectly rigid.
Treating the in-game characters like playing pieces might work better if the game were more like a strategy board game. However, while the combat system is definitely turn-based (and actually, a bit reminiscent of older games like Dark Sun: Shattered Lands), it’s too simplistic to really give you the feel of playing a tactical board game. Vogel makes no apologies for this: “in a turn-based RPG, with a small number of dudes fighting a small number of dudes, there isn’t much in the way of tactics that is possible. The math isn’t there!” (I don’t think that’s true, personally, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
There isn’t really any music in the game, aside from a pretty neat track that plays while you’re on the title screen. Some people will find the stark silence that accompanies even fairly dramatic events (such as combat) disappointing. Music can do an awful lot to set the mood in an RPG, and not having any in a sprawling adventure like Avernum 6 is a wasted opportunity.
Avernum 6 starts off slowly, with you being gradually introduced to the setting and the game’s mechanics via an extended tutorial. Avernum is a gigantic underground region that has been colonized by people from the surface via a magical portal. However, a blight has afflicted all natural underground sources of food, forcing people to flee or face starvation. You are a lowly private in the Avernum armed forces assigned to guard a food storage area. When the game begins, you’ll find items, equip them, and fight (what else?) rats. Here you can get a peek at someone playing through the tutorial sequence:
I didn’t mind the introduction, though I found it strange that Vogel chose to start the player off as an insignificant peon forced to kill wildlife, considering his views on the subject. Suffice it to say that you are going to spend some time clearing trash monsters at the beginning of Avernum 6, mostly in the form of giant rats and goblins. (Vogel does do us the favor of giving the goblins some personality, however: their leader, Lord Trinket, is as funny and vibrant a villain as any I’ve seen recently in an RPG.)
I think the beginning sequence may be Vogel’s way of working through his feelings about the end of the series. He’s been quite vocal about his ambivalence over bringing Avernum to a close. Vogel is tired of writing the same games over and over, but he’s afraid to turn off the spigot of his success. In many regards, the first mission seems to echo that ambivalence, with Sgt. Nichols and the player both acting as ciphers for Vogel: one nervous and fully aware of the risk of moving on, and the other bored of staying in the same familiar place month after month.
For my part, I’ve fully enjoyed my time spent in Avernum 6. If you’re a fan of old-school turn-based RPGs like Fallout and Arcanum, there’s a pretty good chance that you will like this too. There is a large public demo available for the willing: I suggest you go give it a try and decide for yourself.
The Verdict: 4/5. Avernum 6 is a game that lives and dies by the strength of its writing, and the writing is pretty good. While it lacks a certain level of polish, it offers a solid old-school gaming experience that few games these days even attempt.